Thursday, December 1, 2011

Toward an Ethnography of Contingency in the Egyptian Uprisings

On Nov. 27th and 28th, 2011, tens of millions of Egyptians went to the polls to vote for a new parliament. For many, of all eligible ages, it was the first time they had voted—in spite of the fact that Egypt's constitution makes voting mandatory for all adult citizens. They went riddled with doubts about the electoral process—whether it would actually be fair, which candidates stood for which principles, whether the ritual of voting in the face of uncertainty would actually create a better future than had voting for certainties during the last thirty years.

For the first time in decades, pervasive uncertainty at every level of civil society is the norm for Egyptians. The economy is in a shambles, public security is unreliable, and the fate of those who protest against the ruling military council is as uncertain as it ever was during the Mubarak regime.

And yet in Egypt, the alternative to contingency—“stability"—has long been a euphemism for crony capitalism, widening gulfs between rich and poor, suppression of political opposition and violent oppression of dissent.

This essay is a programmatic call for anthropological and ethnographic consideration of Egypt's new ontology of the political-as-contingent. It follows Asad's (1993) injunction that we pay more attention to how people confront the unpredictable, aleatory quality of experience. Egypt's current situation cries out for such an approach as multiple players struggle to put forward different political projects, the outcomes of each impinged on by the outcomes of the others. Nonetheless, it is difficult to write about contingency—about politics in action—given that the act of representation itself, or at least those genres associated with political writing (journalism, commentary, policy analysis, ethnography) introduce structure.

One of the common structures constructed by narratives about the uprisings frame them as a conflict between anti-Mubarak protesters, a rainbow coalition of all walks of Egyptian life bravely defying the tyrant, and pro-Mubarak security police and hired thugs. But the truth on the ground was always more complex. While there were members of every part of Egyptian society among the throngs in Tahrir, the protesters did not represent the whole of Egyptian society, their commitments to the project varied, and their sense of acceptable outcomes were not uniform. Even during 18 days of protest in Tahrir that culminated in Mubarak's resignation, at every stage there have been many voices who insisted that the uprising must stop here, that further protests are unnecessary and do more harm than good.

For example, when the uprising started Aline, a wealthy Egyptian student studying abroad, posted to her Facebook page “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.” The next day, as the protests swelled, she posted “Yalla Misr!” (Go, Egypt!). But just a few days later she had shared a statement by an Egyptian friend, a fellow former student at Egypt’s most expensive private school saying that because Mubarak had agreed to step down at the end of his term, and had appointed a vice-president, it was time to stop protesting. “I know everyone of you loves his country EGYPT, but you are not helping the situation by spreading hate and more protests” the statement said.

Such positions might be dismissed as cold feet on the part of wealthy cosmopolitans who, while attracted to democracy, benefited economically from the former regime. Perhaps the same can be said of the middle class shopkeepers who were angry because their shops continued to be closed due to the collapse of security that accompanied the protests.

Yet many of the working poor also rejected the protests. Thus some of my young Facebook friends from rural communities like Siwa, in the Western desert, were posting pro-Mubarak photos by Jan. 26, and there was a story reported on Al-Jazeera about the working man who came down to Tahrir to protest for Mubarak, prompted by what he saw on state television, but switched sides after he got there and began talking with people decided to join the protest. On NPR, the blogger “Arabist” described an argument with his garbage collector over his continued commitment to the protests after the first week, and Egyptian friends have shared stories of neighbors who went door-to-door urging people not to attend any more protests

And some of those educated, social media-savvy young people usually seen as the core of the uprising varied in their commitments at various stages in the uprising.

One young Egyptian woman described how she and a friend joined the Friday, Jan. 28 protest, shouted anti-government slogans, were tear-gassed by Central Security police and spent hours hiding in buildings as they tried to make their way home.

But after Mubarak’s second address to the nation on Feb. 2, her friend decided to join what Al-Jazeera, CNN and others called “pro-Mubarak” protesters in Mohandiseen. Yet her friend had not become pro-Mubarak, she insisted; he simple felt that the protesters had made significant political gains and should stop demonstrating.

She also described a call from another friend who had spent three days camping out in Tahrir, but now urged my consultant not to return. The time for protesting was over; the time had come for consolidating, planning, and writing, she said.

Thus all through the uprising, from its earliest days, to the most current protests and counterprotests, we find contingent moments and advocacies as the many stakeholders in this effort of remaking Egypt, continue to play out their great experiments in urban and virtual spaces. Months after the Mubarak regime fell, Egypt remains pregnant with possibilities, and which are good and which are bad depends on where you stand.

Studying contingency makes us aware of the reality as well as the social significance of the present, of the unpredictable quality of life. “Although there is past and future, time is neither a flow nor a cycle. It is a resource through which to negotiate and maximize the socialities out of which the continuing meaning of past, present and future will derive” (Heil and Macdonald 2008).

It is well accepted by now in social theory that chance interactions create higher order predictable patterns. Practice theories, in particular, have emphasized the fact that structures are an emergent property of the behavior of millions of social actors pursuing their own strategies, all behaving indeterministically. An ethnographic account of history unfolding must necessarily include description of the outcomes of an aggregate of multitudes of causes, none of which are necessarily uniform with its others.

But ethnographic explanations of social change must also grapple with “the native’s point of view,” and that point of view is itself changing, becoming increasingly aware of the extent to which the future is unpredictable. As Egyptians look to a future, it is with a growing recognition that the future is contingent. Even while they plan future events, small or large scale, they do not succumb to the illusion of predictability. The possibility of constructing a new and better Egypt remains amid the tensions and ambiguities that come with uncertainty.

Mark Allen Peterson
Miami University


Asad, Talal. 1993. Genealogies of religion: Discipline and reasons of power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Heil, Daniela and Gaynor Macdonald. 2008. “Tomorrow comes when tomorrow comes”: Managing aboriginal health within an ontology of life-as-contingent. Oceania 78: 299 – 319

PHOTO: Malak Rouchdy. Used by permission.

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